Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Oversight and Over-Legislation

People always worry about the wrong things. In worrying about the wrong things, they invariably feel compelled to do something about those things.

Call me a curmudgeon. (C’mon, that would be a new one for me, and score one more attempt to revive a Perfectly Useful but Out of Favor word from yesteryear.)

Recent elections and the elevation of a Party more prone to Activist Government has predictably led to suggestions of this or that new program, or matters of Urgent Importance to Public Safety and Wellbeing.

In so doing, such Do-Gooders prepare themselves to make whatever matters they address, worse. This has less to do with the weakness or ineffectiveness of their proposed solutions, than the illogical foundation of their misplaced attention. Do-Gooders then compound these attention deficits with an over-abundance of response. You can’t do good, without doing something, after all.

I call myself a Conservative, but I find less and less common ground with much of what gets said on both sides of the Political Isle. (Indulge me, I refer to that overstuffed spit of land without a State, the District of Columbia, seat of United States Government, the home of so much pork that some desire to bust.

So out of these reflections comes a two-part, largely Libertarian manifesto on misplaced attention and misguided action. As the song goes about another famous Isle, “…put in your pipe and smoke that in.”)

Part One: Oversight

Whenever management types suggest some kind of monitoring, oversight, and gathering of metrics, it is always wise to ask the question, “to what end?” As a Project Manager with experience in many aspects of Information Technology (IT) and system operations management, I frequently ask that question. If you had all the information you think you want in the way you think you want it, how will you use it?

But in many important respects, that’s really the last question in a series that need to be asked. It isn’t always easy to identify the information that you actually need. You may have preconceptions, or prejudices, or even habits of mind that precondition you to look in certain places for certain things. Experience often proves us wrong on base assumptions.

Further, even if you can roughly identify the where and what for consideration, how that information gets captured, compiled, analyzed, manipulated, and packaged for distribution (with or without a rotational motion sometimes called “spin”), may intractably determine your interpretation or reaction to the information gathered. Indeed, that’s often by design. Mainstream media reporting on global warming, Iraq, political events, controversies, religion, evidence many examples of this phenomena.

There are multiple digressions even within this theoretical pursuit. In physics, there is a fanciful concept that, under certain circumstances, the very act of observation can affect data under observation. This is a very common occurrence in the “social” sciences, while far too frequently unacknowledged. There are conditions under which the tools of hard science can detect subtle changes in experimental data based on whether one observes certain interactions, or not. That discussion is almost metaphysical, and can await another day’s dialog.

The information known is often not the right information to generate the desired decision.

A decision may not address the root causes of a particular problem to be resolved, and what is perceived as the important problem may be the wrong one. Information is likely incomplete, inaccurate, or otherwise flawed in some way. What’s not known is possibly more critically important than what is known.

If information known is correct, if it is the right information, if it answers the right questions, will an action be taken? Will the response be likely to be effective in resolving the problem as intended? Will there likely be unintended consequences?

Rather than despair, the considerations above should produce rather a sober acknowledgement that understanding is always imperfect, consequences are never fully understood, and one must always act, if one must act, with imperfect understanding. Sound judgment and good logic will help bridge the gap, but there are few guarantees, and none when it comes to human understanding.

Of course, oversight that remains a spectator sport is a waste of time, effort, and attention, hence the compulsion to act.

For a further contemplation on Over-Legislation and Government Bloat, stay tuned for Part Two.

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